2010 Honorary Director
By Dave Williams
Ever since 1991, thousands upon thousands of people have crowded La Plaza Park in Cotati for one weekend in August to celebrate the accordion. The annual Cotati Accordion Festival, now in its 20th year, may not be the biggest festival or musical event in Sonoma County, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more fun-filled and quirky form of entertainment. And those who have enjoyed this festival over the years have Clifton Buck-Kauffman to thank for it.
Rebecca Browne, former president of the Cotati Chamber of Commerce, summed it up best when she said, “If not for Clifton, the accordion festival would not exist, period.”
Clifton Buck-Kauffman had been a volunteer for a number of local service organizations, including the Cotati Chamber of Commerce and the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County. But it is the accordion festival that will be his lasting legacy. The festival has grown into an event that draws accordion loyalists from all over the country and has made Cotati a destination point for many.
Buck-Kauffman ran the festival for 14 years before stepping away. To honor his years as the producer of the festival, he has been named the honorary director this year. Buck-Kauffman now lives in Vietnam, but will make his first return to the festival this year. “I’m happy with my life now, but I miss seeing some of the people I worked with and the performers who played at the festival,” Buck-Kauffman said. “There are a lot of wonderful people in the accordion world. I’m looking forward to coming back and saying hello to some of my old friends, and it’ll be nice to be able to walk around the festival without having any work to do.”
Along with booking acts and negotiating contracts for the festival, Buck-Kauffman also had to organize the numerous volunteers to keep the festival running smoothly.
“Clifton was definitely the ringleader,” Browne said. “A lot of people came up with so many ideas on how to make the festival successful, but he was able to keep everybody focused. He himself was a volunteer from the beginning and a huge investor. He put a lot of his own money into it. Clifton was adamant about reminding people that this was a benefit and we were raising money. He got people to put on their gracious hats and knock down prices on what they were charging for their services. The reality was that it was all a non-profit organization to provide something for the local youth groups.”
Browne served as co-producer for 14 years with Buck-Kauffman and left the festival the same year. Both had different reasons for leaving but remain proud of their time with the festival.
“I moved out of the area and to continue would have been too difficult,” Brown said. “But if I still lived in the area, I’d definitely be involved. I did it for 14 years, so I must have loved it.”
Buck-Kauffman began attending the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which began the day after the accordion festival en
ded. A couple of years ago the accordion festival moved its schedule up a week to avoid competing with other festivals that were scheduled for the same weekend.
When the accordion festival was conceived, the economy was in the doldrums and several school programs, including music and arts, had to be trimmed from school districts’ budgets. Buck-Kauffman was deeply troubled by those developments and began brainstorming for ways to help provide monies to keep music and arts programs alive in the local schools. Finally, he and renowned accordionist Jim Boggio came up with the idea for this particular event.
“We thought it would be interesting to have an accordion festival that would bring different types of music together, whether it was jazz, polka, Cajun, gypsy or tango,” Buck-Kauffman said. “We wanted it to be something that would appeal to people of all ages. We knew there were quite a few older people into it and we were a little surprised with how many younger people like the accordion as well.”
The CAF initially was a free event for the first three years, but in order to produce the types of desired revenue, Buck-Kauffman knew certain changes had to be made. The biggest and most effective change was erecting a fence around La Plaza Park and charging admission.
“The festival is a fundraiser, so it was difficult to generate the type of funds we wanted to generate without charging admission,” Buck-Kauffman said. “And we needed it to prevent people from coming in and misbehaving. Since one of our focal points was with beer and wine, it was imperative we had the fence because of insurance issues. Plus, we needed more control over the venue.”
The fence around the park has been a bone of contention and an inconvenience for locals because traffic had to be redirected around the park. But time has proved that the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to local youth organizations.”
The first year of the festival proved to be successful enough for Buck-Kauffman to continue with it. He knew he had an event that would draw nationally simply by looking at some of the locales of the names on the tickets sold for raffles.
“No one was more surprised at the enthusiasm for accordion music than me and the other people producing the event,” Buck-Kauffman said. “We had a nice turnout the first year, with thousands of people and that was an eye opener. It was also nice to see where we had a lot of people coming from all over the United States.”
The first festival featured Anthony Gallarini as the honorary director, Art Van Damme, who recently passed away and Sourdough Slim.
“The first year was special, especially having Anthony Gallarini,” Buck-Kauffman said. “He was probably in his 90s and he was a living legend. We just lost Art Van Damme, and he was a real close friend of the festival. He was a true gentleman and a world-class performer. Sourdough Slim really didn’t have a lot of accordion music in his act, but it sort of changed his focus a little bit.”
A festival of this size could not come together without the contributions of those such as Marian Kelly, Steve Balich, Jim Boggio, Richard Cullinan, Eric Kirshman, Pat Ryan and Keith Blackstone. “They gave the event the kind of credibility that made it so accordionists wanted to come her eand perform,” Buck-Kauffman said. “And the artwork by Pat Ryan means a lot to the performers and has added to the quirkiness and people’s appreciation for the event.”
Buck-Kauffman’s initial vision for the accordion festival was where it didn’t matter if one was an accordion virtuoso as long as the performer was entertaining. And he didn’t want it to take on the form of a competition. He also wanted the music to be continuous with minimal breaks between acts.“If this festival was like a competition, it wouldn’t be appealing to anyone but other accordion players,” Buck-Kauffman said. “The multicultural focus of inviting performers from different genres like those who play tangos, polkas, jazz, Cajun and gypsy music have made our event unique. Subsequently other festivals have used our concept and format.”
Some of the entertainers that immediately come to Buck-Kauffman’s mind include Dick Contino, Polkacide and Those Darn Accordions. One of the things that made Buck-Kauffman proud of his time running the festival was how those involved rarely had to deal with ego problems from the performers.
“Those who performed were appreciative of the opportunity to perform,” Buck-Kauffman said. “There weren’t too many divas. People in the accordion world are level-headed and love performing before larger crowds.”
Since his departure, the Cotati Accordion Festival continues to draw sizable crowds, those in attendance continue to have fun, the event continues to create a buzz in the community and the local organizations continue to benefit from what he started.
That’s a legacy that would make anyone proud.